COLLEGE PARK, Md. - A five-alarm fire tore through the upper floors of a seven-story building under construction in Prince George's County on Monday. Over 200 firefighters from around the D.C. region battled the blaze that caused $39 million in damages to the College Park structure. The fire was so severe that firefighters were still on the scene Tuesday morning dousing still smoldering hot-spots.
The huge fire caused the University of Maryland to close at 1 p.m. as a result of the bad air quality in the area and temporarily evacuated dozens of senior citizens who reside nearby the burning building. Fire officials also asked nearby residents to close their windows and doors and turn of their air conditioning units to avoid getting smoke from the massive fire into their homes. the campus is scheduled to reopen on time Tuesday.
The fire was first reported at around 9:35 a.m. at the Fuse 47 building in the 4700 block of Berwyn House Road in College Park. Aerial images from the scene showed flames on the roof of the building, and heavy smoke that continued to billow from the building for hours after firefighters first arrived at the scene. Authorities believe the fire started on the fifth floor and spread to the roof.
Firefighters positioned themselves around the building and used ladders to drench the flames with water. Heavy black and gray smoke can still be seen for miles around the area. The fifth alarm was sounded just before noon. Shortly after that, Prince George's County Fire and EMS spokesperson Mark Brady tweeted that despite "copious amounts of water, the fire continues to extend to the roof assembly."
Acting Prince George's County Fire Chief Ben Barksdale said the fire was a challenging one to knock down due to the way the building is laid out. He explained that it is really two buildings with a courtyard in the middle, and the back side of the complex faces a residential neighborhood, where there is no street access for fire trucks. As a result, it was difficult to get fire equipment to the back side, where the fire had spread.
Barksdale reiterated that access was the biggest challenge in fighting this blaze, saying crews were able to knock down flames on the front side of the building. He added that because the building is under construction, the sprinkler system was not functional.
Barksdale said part of the roof collapsed on the front side, and other parts of the building on the back side started to come down as well.
The acting fire chief said a police helicopter was able to provide an aerial view to firefighters of where the fire was burning.
Just before 3 p.m., Brady tweeted that the fire was under control. However, Acting Chief Barksdale said he expected firefighters to be at the scene throughout the night to make sure any hot spots that pop up could be extinguished.
"We have flowed quite a bit of water -- thousands of gallons into the building," said Barksdale. "Several doors have come apart, blown off the building, so we do have some concern about a possible collapse. So we are making an assessment now as to how we will get in there and mop it up. We have a couple of our tech rescue guys making that assessment as far as structural stability."
Barksdale said one firefighter was transported to the hospital for overexertion. Another firefighter suffered an ankle injury and was treated at the scene. Both of the firefighters injuries are believed to be minor.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation. Prince George's County Fire and EMS estimates the fire caused damages worth $39 million. It is the "largest suppression effort and the highest fire loss estimate in the history of the Fire/EMS Department," fire officials said in a news release.
The Fuse 47 building under construction was set to house both residential and commercial space. Acting Chief Barksdale said residents were expected to start moving in mid-May before the fire occurred.
Prince George's County fire officials are asking residents in the area to close their windows and doors, and turn off their HVAC units to avoid getting smoke into their houses. Barksdale said because it was not hot on Monday, they do not expect to have issues with residents being overcome by heat without open windows and air conditioning running. The smoke, he added, can be dangerous to those with breathing issues if they are exposed.
Barksdale also said that 68 senior citizen residents of the Spellman House are being relocated to the College Park Community Center on Lakeland Road due to smoke. The residents were relocated due to the poor air quality, but Barksdale said there was no damage to their building. They later returned to their building at around 7 p.m. A female resident was transported to the hospital after having trouble breathing, officials said.
Video from the scene, tweeted by Brady, just after 1 p.m. showed thick smoke still billowing from the stubborn fire, which continues to burn.
Streets around the construction area were blocked to traffic as emergency crews responded.
Montgomery County, Anne Arundel County, Howard County and Washington D.C. were among those jurisdictions helping to cover empty Prince George's County fire stations while crews battle the massive fire. Barksdale also thanked the many departments from around the area who have stepped up to help his crews fight the blaze, adding that they expect to be on the scene for several more hours.
Construction workers were inside the building at around 9:30 a.m. when the fire broke out. They were evacuated by the firefighters as the fire rapidly extended.
The McDonald's restaurant in College Park graciously provided refreshments to first responders at no charge, according to a tweet by Brady. "Many thanks- it's been a long day," he added.